Gilda Radner, the funniest woman on television in the 1970s, got hired by Lorne Michaels for what was originally called “NBC’s Saturday Night” before anybody else – before John Belushi, before Chevy Chase, before Dan Aykroyd, before Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris.
Those who watched the show in 1975 or a year or two later, when it was getting huge and starting to change the culture, had their favorites. But the Detroit-born Radner was the one everybody cherished. She brought a huge smile, a wryly forlorn quality around the eyes, and a fearless attack to every sketch, lame or inspired. Radner naturally gravitated toward the midpoint between chameleons like Belushi and Aykroyd, and more easygoing improv aces such as Bill Murray, who filled the Chevy Chase slot once Chase left to become Hollywood-famous.
Most of the men tried. None of the women got the same chances.
The documentary “Love, Gilda” works different ways for different viewers. For older fans, it’s a welcome excuse to reminisce. For newcomers it’s an entertaining primer on Radner’s life, times, demons and famous inventions.
Chief among those inventions were “Weekend Update” contributors Roseanne Roseannadanna and sweet, addled Emily Litella, wondering why everyone’s complaining about all the “violins” on television. Radner based Litella on her nanny, Dibby, the caretaker she considered “a second mother” and the one who did not bug her about her weight the way her birth mother did.
Director Lisa D’Apolito throws no stones in “Love, Gilda.” It’s a quick, breezy, tactful account. Current and recent “SNL” performers including Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy appear in the movie, reading excerpts from Radner’s journals, and speaking from the heart about what Radner’s presence on “SNL” meant to their younger selves. (Poehler acknowledges that her own early “SNL” contributions tended to be “weak, 2.0 versions” of characters Radner created decades earlier.)
Radner’s father, whom Gilda adored, died when she was barely a teenager. By then her mother, who preferred a warmer climate than Michigan’s, relocated the family to Florida for four months every year. The routine didn’t help young Gilda feel settled or attached in any lasting way. Her mother needled her about Gilda’s weight fluctuations; Dexedrine-like diet pills became a staple, and Gilda put up with a depressing amount of verbal bullying at school.
“If they call ya fat,” Dibby once told her, “just make a joke about it and laugh.” That became Radner’s first valuable performance lesson; comedy, we hear Radner say in “Love, Gilda,” means “hitting on the truth before the other guy thinks of it.”
She sought reassurance and confidence, often by way of relationships. Toward the end of her years at the University of Michigan Radner followed Canadian sculptor Jeffrey Rubinoff back to Toronto. There she got cast in the Toronto company of “Godspell,” which included Martin Short, Paul Shaffer and Victor Garber. This led to Toronto’s Second City company and, in New York, “The National Lampoon Radio Hour.” “Saturday Night Live” beckoned at exactly the right time.
Once the alpha males started leaving “SNL,” the pressure to carry the show shifted to Radner, who never developed a viable film career. After a brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith (later musical director on “SNL”), Radner found a long-sought love match in Gene Wilder. Her cancer diagnosis takes “Love, Gilda” into what its subject left behind: a best-selling 1989 autobiography, published two weeks after her death, and the Cancer Support Community-affiliated Gilda’s Clubs nationwide, including Kansas City.
“Being funny got me famous,” Radner once wrote. “And being famous is almost as bad for dating as being funny.” She loved the attention and resented the intrusion. “Being an underdog and a voyeur,” Radner once said, “makes comedy possible.” Where does celebrity fit into that?
If “Love, Gilda” stays on the surface, the surface is nonetheless compelling, and sad. And not only sad. Its subject was lit from within, and too busy going for broke in hilarious ways, one creation and interaction at a time.
I had my own unlikely meeting with Radner at the height of her “SNL” fame, and it has stayed with me, just because she was so nice. Senior year of high school, March 1978, I took a trip to New York City with my dad. We traveled by train, just like people did in the movies I loved.
We got tickets to Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” and the musical “On the Twentieth Century,” starring Madeline Kahn. (Kahn, who I was hopelessly in the bag for as a teenage moviegoer, left the show a few nights later.)
The main attraction was “Saturday Night Live.” On a recent business trip, my father sat next to Gilda Radner on his flight home. I don’t think he knew much about her beforehand; I don’t think he saw the show that made her famous more than once or twice. He mentioned we’d be coming out to New York soon to see some shows, and she invited us to a final dress rehearsal of “SNL.”
The guest host that week (not very good, as it turned out) was Christopher Lee. Final dress/tech rehearsals can be screamingly dull but I was thrilled, milling around with a few dozen other folks in the studio where it all happened. I half-expected Radner, even if we did end up meeting her, to fake-recall meeting this man on a recent flight.
But then: “John! JOHN PHILLIPS! HEY!” Radner saw my dad from across the stage, hollered up to our seats, bounded over and stuck out her hand with a “Hi, I’m Gilda!” She knew what that would mean to a couple of guys from Racine, Wis.
The only other thing I remember from that “SNL” run-through involved Belushi, and just how often and how long he’d disappear. I remember the increasing irritability on Curtin’s face. I remember the minutes and minutes of waiting, and searching, and waiting.
As “SNL” cast member Newman says in “Love, Gilda,” regarding those early years: “The boys were late. The girls were on time.”
(At the Glenwood Arts.)